Salvo Brings Expertise in ‘Space and Place’ to Reduce Health Disparities

Faculty; Public Health; Social Work

Deborah Salvo’s research into health disparities has focused on obesity prevention, physical activity and spatial epidemiology in both Latin America and the U.S. Now, Salvo’s research will be based in St. Louis with a new role as an assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

Her key research question: How does urban design influence the health of populations, and how does it contribute to health disparities in different ways around the world?

Prior to joining the Brown School, Salvo was an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health in Austin. She continues to serve as an adjunct researcher and faculty member at the Nutrition and Health Research Center at the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico.

Salvo’s interests lie in generating, translating and scaling up evidence for reducing health and social disparities both locally and globally, with a particular emphasis on chronic disease prevention in low and middle-income countries, as well as among minority groups in the United States.

A major component of her work is developing better ways to measure health behaviors and their relation to space and place in different localities and nations, where unique physical and social characteristics can influence people’s health.

Salvo is looking forward to the transdisciplinary nature of work at the Brown School. “I’m a public health scientist, but moving into a ‘one school’ approach that integrates public health, social work and policy, while seeking social justice at the forefront, is very important to me,” Salvo said. “I also like the school’s global focus and international presence, with students from around the world.”

Salvo grew up in Mexico City and considers herself privileged, having always had access to good educational and health services in a country with striking inequalities. This, coupled with a community project in rural North Carolina, working with Latino farmworkers, made her become aware of how disparities in the environment can affect health. An affinity for sports led to an interest in the fields of physical activity, nutrition and public health, and Salvo began researching the place and space-based causes of obesity and physical inactivity in a variety of settings, including Mexico City and Cuernavaca (Mexico), the San Francisco Bay Area, Austin and Houston—as well as collaborating projects throughout Latin America and beyond.

“One of the biggest surprises for me has been how context-specific these things are,” Salvo said. “What works in one place doesn’t work in another place.”

One of her current projects is looking at the effect of a new light rail system in Houston on physical activity, and how different spatial methods can be incorporated to better understand the relations between urban design and health. She’ll be working with Professor Rodrigo Reis at the Brown School on a similar investigation of physical activity and light rail use in St. Louis.